November is National Impotency Awareness Month. Here at O.school, we’re unpacking the shame around erectile dysfunction by discussing why being impotent does not mean being unable to enjoy sex or give pleasure.
“So I’ve been thinking,” he said. “Sometimes, in our situation, the guy can go with the girl to find her a ‘friend.’ For...you know.”
I stared at the phone, unable to believe what I was hearing. We were five months into what would end up being an eight-month relationship, and this was the first real inkling I had that his impotence was going to be a problem. It had come up a few times before, but always with hope for the future: “I wish I could but, someday, once my health gets under control, we can make that happen,” and “Look what else we could try instead.” Now, all of a sudden, it was “Let’s find you someone else.” Perhaps because we’d discovered that his health issues were worsening rapidly, rather than resolving.
He’d brought both up on our very first date — the ED and the health conditions at its root. Funny conversation for a first date, maybe, but from our first phone call, it had been clear that something special was going on between us. That first call had lasted almost 10 hours, and we’d had three more like it before we ever actually met. We connected on levels I didn’t even know I had. I loved him in a way I didn’t know I was capable of loving.
So after the movie and the chili cheese fries, we headed to a park for some real talk. Let’s get the possible dealbreakers out of the way now, we thought. We both had PTSD: Me, from a handful of individual, unrelated traumas. Him, from spending almost 30 years in one of the faith traditions that many countries classify as a cult. He had a myriad of interrelated health issues, all of them chronic, life-threatening, and ultimately terminal. I’m on the spectrum. We were both going through career upheavals.
And, also, he was impotent.
Not completely impotent, just enough to make penetration impossible. He could orgasm and even ejaculate, as we discovered to his surprise. He just couldn’t actually put himself inside me.
In hindsight, I should have realized right then — during that first-date, dealbreaker conversation — that this would ultimately be a problem for us. He really thought a little ED was the thing most likely to make me think twice about a relationship, if not drive me away completely. Not the fact that he constantly looked over his shoulder in public thanks to a lifetime in a religion that regularly sends members to spy on one another. Not the kidney function just two percentage points shy of dialysis. Not the heart condition that often made breathing difficult and could take him out at any moment. He figured those things could be improved. But the fact that he couldn’t put his penis inside me? Surely that would make me run screaming.
Perhaps I should have known it was only a matter of time before he would suggest bringing someone else into the bedroom. Foolish me, it never crossed my mind. I’d thought our sex life was perfectly fine. His years of dealing with impotence had led him to cultivate his manual and oral skills to an incredible degree, and mine never failed to work for him. He also had a voice as rich and smooth as a saxophone, as well as an SAT vocabulary. When we talked sexy — in bed or out of it — he had this incredible way of blending flights of poetic romanticism with snippets of well-written porn movie dialogue. For someone who is off-the-charts aural like I am, it was pretty much heaven. The real kicker was that we’re both empaths, he far stronger than I. And if you’ve never been to bed with a powerful empath intent on showing you the full depth of his feelings… All I can say is good lord are you missing out. The intensity and intimacy between us were extraordinary. It saturated the very air every time we went to bed. It was enough. It was more than enough.
Plus we loved each other. Really, truly loved each other. If soulmates are real, that’s what we were. I’ve only been surer of one thing in my life: That breaking up with him was ultimately the right thing to do.
There were issues before the day he asked if we should hunt up a surrogate penis — most of them tied to childhood traumas he hadn’t dealt with and preferred to keep right on ignoring. He could never believe that he was good enough, and he’d flat-out not listen to me when I’d say anything that contradicted the set-in-stone preconceptions in his head.
And that was my issue with his suggestion. If it had been born out of personal fantasy, then we could have talked. I’m not sure I’d have been down to bring someone else into bed, but it could have been a conversation.
The problem was that I was perfectly satisfied, but he refused to believe me — no matter how often I said so.
When we were together, he could see and feel that what we had was everything to me. The moment he left my house and went into his head, however, that sureness about us disappeared for him, as though it had never been. He’d literally walk out my door in the afternoon, excited about our future… then call me from his place that evening, convinced we were too good to be true and would never last.
I’ve never known whether the conversation about bringing someone into the bedroom was simply another example of his refusal to hear me, or whether it was an advance shot in the vicious campaign of gaslighting and emotional abuse that he eventually waged to make me leave him — a campaign he later admitted to but still believes was justified. After all, why, according to him, should I be stuck with a 47-year-old on the transplant list who can’t work, can’t mow the lawn, and can’t get it up? He seemed unable to decide which one would spell the end of us. One day, it would be the joblessness, the next, we’d be back on impotency. Then a week would pass peacefully, and just when I thought we were back on track, everything would blow up again. Each time, his tone grew more aggressive, his words crueler. Until, eventually, the only thing I could say in response was goodbye.
His impotence was the least of our problems. But thanks to a devastating cocktail of social constructs of masculinity, a lifetime of shame and abuse at the hands of religion, and his own unyielding perceptions of what a man should be, he’ll never see that. He’s too conditioned to bemoan what’s “missing” to ever appreciate the wonderful things that are. He always knew, in his heart of hearts, that we wouldn’t work out.
I guess he was right.
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